|Like Springsteen and his Telecaster, Neil Young with his Black Les Paul, or Hendrix and his upside-down Strat, whenever I see Dexter Romweber, he's almost always got a signature guitar in hand or nearby; a black, glitter-covered Silvertone. However, unlike those aforementioned rockers, Dex seems to have stayed (or been kept) away from the enormous fame and fortune that Bruce, Neil and Jimi have garnered over the years. That's not to say he doesn't have a legion of fans out there, but when you say 'Dexter Romweber' to your everyday music fan, you're more likely to get a "Huh?" than an "Oh, Yeah!" Not that it's his fault. Since the mid-80s, when a lot of us were rockin' to the 'New South' sounds from R.E.M., Dreams So Real, Love Tractor, Let's Active, Guadalcanal Diary, the dBs and others, Dex's group Flat Duo Jets made an impression at the local level through sweaty, intense rock and roll throwdown gigs filled with stripped down, tough-as-nails originals and choice covers, and those not fortunate enough to see Dex and drummer Crow (or any number of FDJ configurations) live got a glimpse via an MTV "120 Minutes" piece or the "Athens GA Inside/Out" movie that played many an art-house theatre back in the day. Though revered and influential, wide distribution of their recordings arrived late in the game (FDJ's first real album didn't come out 'til 1990). That, along with sometimes disappointing sales, unfriendly focus group-run radio... all this (and more; see 'Two Headed Cow' if you can) conspired to keep the Flat Duo Jets star from rising beyond a particular degree in the rock and roll firmament, and the band called it quits after 1998's "Lucky Eye." Dexter has had plenty of solo (and Duo) output since then, and his Silvertone has been by his side for nearly the entire ride.
Dex has had a renaissance of sorts in the past half-dozen years or so thanks to rocker Jack-of-all-trades White's accolades. "I'm oblivious to my 'star status,' " says Dex, with a bemused smile that is not bitter, or regretful or 'coulda shoulda' at all. It's just a matter-of-fact statement of the Romweber reality, like so many others that Dex was kind enough to share with me on a recent Sunday morning in his adopted hometown of Carrboro, NC. Our conversation ranged from technical and romantic notions regarding guitars, to musical influences (you won't believe the first record Dex bought), to daily demons, to his latest album. We'll get to all that in a 'graph or two, but first... back to that Silvertone.
It's the famous 1448 model, the one that came with the amp built right into the case; the one most folks think of when they hear the name 'Silvertone.' It was a stroke of marketing genius by Sears, and if today's collectors market is any indication, they sold several thousand of 'em in the three years or so that the setup was offered. Good thing, because Dex has been through "about thirteen" of them himself. "I wear them out. Some get stolen. New Orleans... Austin, I've lost a couple. I think the one I currently have is my favorite."
"Silvertones are fascinating things. Other guitars are just way too clean for me. There are other artists that I like that play Gibsons and Fenders... but in terms of what I do, for me, Silvertone's where it's at. I love the sound I get out of that baby. I got my first model from a guitarist in a band called Killer Filler, he also played with my sister's band Mondo Combo... his name is Pete Gamble; he sold me my first model, so I was playing them very young. I have photos of me playing them as a teenager. I had a really peculiar amp, called a Conn... they made saxophones, it was this big UFO-looking thing from the 60s, and with the combination of the 1448 and that Conn amp, I got the weirdest, wildest sounds. The Flat Duo Jets record "In Stereo" was recorded using that setup, but I had the habit of kicking my amps over, and I ruined that amp, which I really regret, 'cause it was really a great amp. At other times I was using other guitars in the studio, but the 1448 has a sound that I always compared to an organ. It's a blues sound, it's a raw sound, it's a bassy sound, and like I said... it's not too clean." Inquiring what, if any, modifications Dex has made to his 1448s over the years, he says "I get a different bridge on mine, and some new tuners. You really gotta wrestle with 'em." Current road and studio amplification? "I use a 1982 Randall that's as raw as that 1448, and they tend to go pretty well together. It's been through a lot of tours it's pretty beat up, but it's my raunchy amp."
After our chat about matters of technicality and Silvertonium, we turned to a world of subjects; a name or question would lead to an area of interest, and we'd proceed from there.
|Dex Romweber Duo
Is That You In the Blue?
"I'm real proud of it, and Sara's happy about it, too; she says it's the coolest record she's ever been on, and man... it's a good record. I hope folks get something out of it. "
"I don't have any idea of how many people listen to
or like what we do, but I can honestly say that when I leave this Earth
that I've made a contribution to the arts. The songs and influences come
from artists like Benny Joy, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles and Elvis and surf bands
and Eddie Cochran and Django Reinhardt... there's a slew of artists that I really love... it's heavy to think about."
I mention that I live in Link Wray's birthplace of Dunn, NC, and Dex
comes back with a tribute to the influential guitarist and another short list that had a few surprises; "Link Wray
is a great influence and always a source of inspiration for me... and so is
Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page... Big Joe Williams... Jackie Gleason." Jackie
Gleason? "I love 'The Honeymooners.' "
"I was a KISS fan. In certain ways, I still am. I
thought KISS was the bee's knees. I saw them in West Virginia in '78. The sound
was awful, but I got to see my idols. Eventually, I started digging deeper
into music. I like the early '60s Rolling Stones...
stuff like "Under My Thumb," I thought is was killer. I like Led Zeppelin... I got
into all that, and then I found Elvis and fifties music, Eddie Cochran and Gene
Vincent. I loved the simplicity of it. Songs like "Blue Moon of Kentucky,"
"That's All Right, Mama," when I heard those... well, a lot of what I do came
from them. I tend to think of myself as a rockabilly artist, but not the Gretsch
guitar/stand-up-bass/one snare drum/generic pompadour rockabilly. I
play a lot of different types of music, so when I say rockabilly, to me, that
encompasses everything, 'cause I think the rockabillies used everything,
including jazz. I mean, a lot of the solos from those cats were jazz
"When I see him I always like to say 'You're from Montgomery Wards and I'm
from Sears.' I dig the sound he gets."
I ask Dex about a statement he made in a YouTube film a couple years back about his admirable goal onstage being to "Break into the world of spirit." I asked if it happened often enough for him these days. "Oh, yeah. I generally say a few prayers before I go on and that really can free me up or make me feel a bit stronger, but in the past few years I've played more shows that I like than ones I don't." Our conversation turns deeper as Dex relates an incident from years ago on a Flat Duo Jets tour that changed his life in a fundamental way. "I had a very traumatic experience on the road years ago... a very violent thing that happened in Florida and it changed my life and set it on a different course and I wish it'd never happened... I found myself in some kind of war among people and it was the worst impression I ever received in my life on humanity, and it changed me. It changed me. You can be hijacked by fear, and suddenly life doesn't appear as safe as you thought it was... so I've had to deal with that, and it's... been a hell of an education on the human mind. As strong as we may seem, we're actually rather fragile, and when you're right up close to a sense of death... I don't know, it just changes you. Every day is a quest to find my way out of that. It's a heavy thing, man."
Dex shakes off the gloom as we wrap up on a positive and
expansive and revealing and, to me, really beautiful note as I ask him about
his beliefs regarding things beyond this Earthly pale. They tumble out so
easily, I can tell they're part of Dex's very heart and soul: "I'm aware
of different dimensions to life; and I don't think this is the only one.
I think the soul is on a course of development, and I believe I've been
here before. I believe in spiritual hierarchies of very powerful beings
that are unseen, I believe in a central creator and I believe that the
Earth is just one of its hobbies, <laughing> and a weird-ass hobby it is. I believe that you can ask for
help. I love the mystery of things. I believe there are karmic debts and
scenarios in our minds, emotions and bodies. I think that the ultimate goal is to
just not hurt anybody, and that's not always easy; because there's like... weird
energies... in us and outside of us. It's been a little perilous for me, but at the
same time there's been this urging for me to pull it together, as I know what
it's like to be ripped apart. The Earth is a weird place, I wish it didn't have
to be so painful sometimes, but as you know, there's good, too. I'm seeking
the good times, man."
articles at Silvertone World:
Dexter Romweber Artist Page
What's It Worth? ~ Pricing/Commentary Page
From A Dano Six
Seated Dex: Joe Boy Sidney
Record Store Dex: Christina Hutchinson/Facebook
45 Sleeve: Third Man Records
'Blue' Cover: Bloodshot Records
1448 Listing: 1962 Sears Wish Book